Yesterday night I saw The Mirror, by Tarkovsky. I was fascinated by every single image and poetry, but it was hard for me to understand. I believe the more I think of it I understand it better (or I think I do) though I don’t dare to say it out loud / at least for now…
But I would really appreciate some good “guidelines” to approach such a movie and get a better experience out of it. I thought I was missing out on so much (as every single image seemed to mean something that most of the times escaped my reason) though maybe it’s not all / only about reason.
I would really love your insight. Thanks a lot in advance. Anna.
Tarkovsky’s films, to me at least, are completely open to interpretation. Your feelings about the film are the right ones. I think the basic we can boil this film down to is it’s about memory, but other than that I think every image is open to however you interpret it. It’s what I love about Tarkovsky.
It’s good to believe it this way, but is it really all free to interpretation? I’m not that sure… there’s a lot of symbols that probably I miss out because of lack of knowledge in history/religion/art… is it that open?
Tarkovsky pretty much left his films completely open. He would rarely speak on any meaning of any visual symbol in his films, so I tend not to worry myself about the “correct” interpretation. Every film of his I’ve seen has something I connect to, and it may or may not have been his intention, but it’s just as valid a view as anyone elses. I think Tarkovsky wanted his films to be personal (both to him, and the audience) and in this regard he left his films open ended.
We could study Russian art, history, and religion for centuries and I don’t really think it’s going to deepen my affection for this film. The only thing that’s going to do that is watching it again.
Thanks for your approach, Josh. It is always good to leave your interpretations to personal intuition. I guess then it can’t be wrong. :)
Well, I wouldn’t want to close off interpretation of that wonderful movie, but there are some suggestions, especially as I think a lot of the action of the film is clearer to a Russian audience familiar with the historical events depicted. Further clarification is in the collection of Tarkovsky’s scripts, which includes a fuller version of the script for Zerkalo.
So here’s my (tentative, possible) take: In the film, the narrator remembers being raised by his mother, who took care of him after his father went off to fight in WWII (known in Russia as “the Great Patriotic War”). His mother originally worked in a Soviet publishing house (their terror at a word being misprinted may be a reference to the real-life case of a newspaper publisher who was sent to the gulags when a transposed letter resulted in a loyal Stalinist minister being given the name of an excommunicated Old Bolshevik). But without his father, their family becomes terribly poor, and must go to distant relatives in the hopes of some food or a place to sleep. The narrator, a little older, is taken into the children’s military corps, where he’s a washout, though not as embarrassing as the city kid from Leningrad (a.k.a. the “blockadnik”, one of the children sent to the country to escape the terrible starvation prevalent during the siege of Leningrad). Years later, the narrator (never seen, only heard) has grown into a novelist, with a sad ex-wife, a distant child, and a mother who berates him over the phone, as well as neighbors who’ve never gotten over their experiences during the Spanish Civil War, when many Spanish Communists got aid from the USSR to fight Franco.
It’s worth noting that one of the things that makes the action hard to follow is Tarkovsky’s deliberate casting of the same people as figures in the past and present. This reinforces the film’s larger point—-that past and present are inextricable, constantly bleeding into each other—-but it does make it a little hard to tell who’s who.
That last point, I love. The deliberate confusion of past and present and characters. I love how you put it: “constantly bleeding into each other”. Not only in characters but also in history and memory and violence, that keeps being present no matter how far you want it to put.
“a non-narrative, stream of consciousness autobiographical film-poem that blends scenes of childhood memory with newsreel footage and contemporary scenes examining the narrator’s relationships with his mother, his ex-wife and his son.” Maximilian Le Cain
I knew nothing about the autobiographical framework of the film before watching Mirror, although it felt very much like a personal log. It enthralled me. The film’s rhythm, its texture, its shape. I was utterly captivated by Tarkovsky’s temporal representation of events summarised in Sculpting in Time as the “expression of the course of time within the frame”. His style in Mirror for me occupied a sublime middle ground between a time based media artist and highly artistic and spiritual auteur filmmaker. From the moment the film started I became a student again, hypnotised by his movement of the camera, the elongated sequence shots, the lyrical slow motion cinematography and some of the most evocative sound design I’ve ever experienced. The creative thinking and ideas it spawned have gone on and on and on. For me personally, Tarvokvsky embeds image and sound in the visual and aural memory more deeply than any other filmmaker I can think of.
If there is anything like a guideline for understanding the “non-narrative” of Mirror, then it would most definitely be Tarkovsky´s book Sculpting in Time. He explains his concept of time and subjective memory far better than most critics have, and brings us a bit closer to the meaning of his art. Nevertheless must Mirror always be understood in the context of Tarkovsky´s personal life and his artistic development, since some of the episodes can be regarded as a “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”. And I think that reading Joyce in general can be benificial for capturing the stream-of-conciousness-like development of the film, since Tarkovsky was trying to visualize thoughts and memories in an associative way. He sometimes also plays with it being a pseudo-genre-film and makes use of techniques that one is used seeing in a horror film which makes Mirror rather experimential, and also uses colors and sepia more deliberately than he has done before. I think that apart from all efforts in order to understand Mirror can there be no doubt about it that it´s one of the most astonishingly beautiful works of arts of the 20th century, and contains images that will forever stay with the viewer.
Tarkovsky’s comments in Sculpting in Time on the use of Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of Ginevra de Benci (my favourite by him) in Mirror lead to this observation: “the great function of the artistic image is to be a kind of detector of infinity…towards which our reason and our feelings go soaring, with joyful, thrilling haste”.. Now wasn’t he an optimist? And an idealist, not a cynic or pessimist.
Of the portrait he says, “we shall derive deep pleasure from the realisation that we cannot exhaust it, or see to the end of it” And that’s what i feel about Mirror, it has unfathomable depths and it’s inexhaustible. And dare i say, as great as any Da Vinci painting! This film shows what a majestic unsurpassed artform cinema can be, it draws on others but it has its special moving image.
Yes, Sculpting in Time- i’d like to keep quoting- is invaluable. For me, Tarkovsky had a beautiful mind with a high purpose, some find that pretentious but look at what he achieved. Few have followed his fluid mix of colour, sepia, black and white, and the personal and historical.
one more quote: “In a word, the image is not a certain meaning, expressed by the director, but an entire world reflected as in a drop of water”. Yes he brings out something miraculous and infinite in the smallest element we take for granted, that we don’t take time to observe or appreciate. And i think there’s a link here also to his appreciation of Japanese miniature haiku poems, like Basho’s
Frog jumps in
Sound of water
Another thing i like about Tarkovsky is the deep genuine respect he has for some other great directors. I see an open generosity in him.
There’s the fantastic scene in Mirror where the family go outside to watch the fire that we see through the drops of rain dripping from the overhang. And it reminds me that in the one film i think is its rival as greatest artwork of the 20th century, Sansho the Bailiff, water and fire are also central, and that too in its final shot seems to reach towards the infinite
Wow! thank you all! I should read Sculpturing in Time first. Then I guess my approach to his works of art will be more open-minded and real.
Apursansar & Carl: understanding The Mirror as a stream-of-consciousness makes it all more clear to me now. I think we are taught to understand movies & narrations of any kind in a strict narrative way, and that may not always be close to reality, which is usually more chaotic and complex than begin-middle-end. So it’s a prejudice to try to understand everything on this pattern and sometimes makes it poorer to perceive.
Kenji: The quote “entire world reflected as in a drop of water” is very brave, I think. Like a moral approach to art that nowadays lacks so much. By the way, I should soon re-watch Sansho the Bailiff, or else one day I’ll have nothing to talk with you, I’m afraid ;=)
PS. The use of Leonardo Da Vinci in The Mirror was just so beautiful and pure…
watch the mirror and more art movies in original at www.artmovies.tk
I like popcorn
Man, Cinesnag, my friends and I split a large popcorn at NOSTALGHIA a few weeks ago. It was REALLY crunchy. The movie was REALLY quiet.
I just saw this for the first time and was really blown away by how many beautiful images can be captured in one film. I’m speechless. Thanks for the insights contributed on this thread.
Something has already been outlined, though I feel to add my word about some stuff. Tarkovskij himself expressed somewhat of a “contempt” for the term “symbol”. He didn’t want his movies to be conventionally deciphered, for him a cinematic image was some kind of higher order than symbol (at least that is what I get from reading Sculpting in Time and other essays/interviews by him).
Anyway, as the title of the book implies (by the way, I noticed that for this book you can encounter in various languages basically two titles: in english and some other languages it would be “Sculpting in Time”, in others it would echo, translated back to English, rather something like “The Time Sealed”), the key element of cinema for him seems to be the time, the temporality of the image itself is therefore a good start to think not only about The Mirror, but other of his movies as well, I think.
Someone already mentioned the “past and present characters bleeding into each other” and quoted Tarkovskij directly. An interesting take/comments on this brings Deleuze in Cinema 2: The Time-Image with the concept of the crystals of time. He’s talking about how “actual” and “virtual” are intertwined in one image. What is interesting for me is how Tarkovskij’s own cinema-concepts (derived from his own practice) merge at this point with the ones of Deleuze (even though the Frenchman was writing a propos the films), no matter how overally “incompatible” those two personas seem to be.
To sum-up a bit: you can always interpret the images basically as you wish, you can come with any preconceived theoretical concepts and “impose” those on the images/movies in front of you. Like that you could proclaim Tarkovskij’s films to be a lot of things (The Mirror for instance to be “a portrayal of a memory of an individual opressed by the totalitarian regimes”, or anything in that way). Or you can immerse yourself in the images and let them guide you somewhere. (In this regard, I’d like to quote what Miklós Jancsó said: “It has been said, that it’s very difficult to understand my films, that to achieve that you need to be familiar with the history of Hungary, the area around the Danube and so on. But that is not the truth. You have to watch the films!” I think you can perfectly apply that to Tarkovskij, no matter how different he is to Jancsó in style and everything else.)
The influence of/ similarities with the film Zoya by Leo Arnshtam are explored in the book Tarkovsky (ed Nathan Dunne). Zoya was a patriotic teen killed in WW2 well known as a great heroine in Russia. In Arnshtam’s film she is “shown floating saint-like above the earth”, and “seen defying the laws of gravity in the face of her torture by the Nazis”; linked to Maria’s angelic levitation in Mirror. Levitation occurs elsewhere in Tarkovsky, as does flight (including balloons in Mirror and Rublev- i love balloons!). Like Mirror, Zoya uses newsreel footage, and its heroine practises on a shooting range, and there’s a balloon flight… It may be that some avant-garde artists have based career reputations on less than the beauty of what Tarkovsky comes up with, as “found footage”?
I see Mirror as a cubist work, from so many angles, personal and panoramic, dream-like and also grounded in historical reality, crossing from what’s on screen to the father’s poems narrated. Central is the mother figure, the immortal self-sacrificing female, as in Sansho the Bailiff and as in Sansho, absent father and a sense of loss, underpinned by the poems, e.g Euridice (who of course was separated from Orpheus). Timlessness and immortality underlined by dual use of actress Terekhova.
Time for Tarkovsky is non-linear, like memory. It can be stretched, well he’s hardly the only director to use slow-motion (Hollywood hacks do it too), but also through an unexpectedly long corridor at a point of tension. And it can be held in stillness
As often in Tarkovsky, exile- here including Spaniards from Franco’s dictatorship. Universal humanity, intersection of experiences. And anti-fascist
Characters examine themselves without preening in the film, the mirror as a screen, almost as if the boy is seeing himself in a film, burgeoning self-awareness and of how others might see him?
The mundane reality, e.g of killing a cock, a scene which Tarkovsky felt may have been an error, alongside more ethereal and spiritual aspects, with as usual mundane elements made miraculous.
do many people here dream of levitating or flying?
“Like a madman brandishing a razor”
the black-haired woman and her maid (the woman being kris kelvin’s mother (or aunt?) in ‘solaris’) that make the boy read from the notebook and later appear when the doctor is giving the narrator some sort of diagnosis, does anybody have any interpretations or ideas about their significance or who they might be?
I recently watched this film, and while I honestly didn’t understand most of what is was probably saying, I was hypnotized by it.
i want to link this here. flani is doing a wonderful timeline of events in the film